If you’ve been preparing rice this way in the kitchen, your health could be in real danger.
While rice is an incredibly popular food item around the world, it actually carries a few risks for consumers. For instance, warming up leftovers could make you ill if you’re not careful. Furthermore, it’s also been revealed that a common cooking technique might have long-term consequences for your health.
Thanks in part to its versatility, rice has become a staple food in households across America. From curry dishes to simple snacks, you can’t go wrong with a helping of the fluffy grain when hunger strikes. The numbers certainly back that up, as the statistics portal Statista unveiled some intriguing figures.
Indeed, the website noted that more than four million metric tons of rice was eaten in America between 2019 and 2020. Alongside that, Statista revealed that the cereal had been grown in huge amounts during the first year as well. The figure from the United States stood at roughly 184.68 million hundredweight.
Overall, more than 490 million metric tons of rice was eaten across the world during the 2018/19 fiscal year, with India and China leading the way. Yet regardless of its popularity, consumers could be putting their health at risk when they decide to cook up a batch. And as we suggested earlier, a trusted technique might be to blame.
For such a simple staple food, cooking — and reheating — rice can be surprisingly fraught with health hazards. As we mentioned earlier, warming up leftover rice in your kitchen can be problematic if you go about it the wrong way. But why does it make you feel so sick?
Well, according to the Medical News Today website, rice carries a harmful germ known as Bacillus cereus. If you fail to get rid of it, the pathogen could lead to a bout of food poisoning. In most cases, you’ll be left with an upset stomach, yet other individuals with existing medical ailments might suffer additional problems.
While Bacillus cereus can increase during the initial cooking process, it will also become more prevalent in the rice you put aside for another day. However, the risks could be averted if you adhere to certain instructions in the kitchen. The United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA, shared some of those tips in August 2018.
After cooking the rice in your saucepan, you might believe that the leftovers need time to cool down before putting them away. But the USDA claimed that it’s crucial to lower the temperature of the remaining grains immediately. If you don’t, the germs are given a chance to build up.
So once you’ve placed the rice in your fridge, you should try to use it within a couple of days. The USDA noted that the portion must be binned if it’s left for any longer than that. And regarding the reheating process, the organization made it clear that the rice has to reach around 165°F before you dish it up.
Meanwhile, hungry consumers have been known to make a few other missteps when preparing their rice as well. For instance, the measurements of grains and water are absolutely key. If you choose to ignore them, there’s a good chance that your dinner won’t turn out the way that you’d hoped.
But one of the biggest missteps relates to the kind of rice that you use. As you’ll probably know, there’s a host of different grains on the market today, such as aromatic rice and brown rice. Whatever your preference may be, you might believe that these varying types should all be cooked in an identical manner.
As it turns out, though, that’s not the case. The Insider website reported that aromatic rice needs a “pre-soak” to help maintain its subtle mouth-watering smell during the cooking process. While white and brown variations have their own unique scents, it’s hardly essential if you lose them.
Elsewhere, brown rice doesn’t take the same amount of time as its white counterpart to prepare. Brown rice needs to be cooked longer and also requires a bit more water. Insider noted that this was, “because you have the bran part of the rice grain to cook through as well.”
And to further prove the point that not all types of rice are the same, food specialist Hiroko Shimbo leave some tips for preparing sushi rice. “Instead of soaking the rice after its fourth rinsing, drain it and let it rest in a colander for an hour before cooking,” Shimbo wrote in her book The Japanese Kitchen. “This produces firmly cooked rice.”
Aside from that, putting the rice on the correct heat is vitally important too. Insider reported that once you’ve got your water boiling, you should switch to a low flame and keep the saucepan covered for the duration. When the time comes to serve it up, the grains will likely be in perfect condition.
However, if you don’t turn down the flame, the results can be quite unappetizing. For example, the exterior might appear nice and fluffy when you sit down to eat, but the interior remains solid. In other cases, the rice can become scorched due to the warm temperatures as well.
If that wasn’t enough, another potential mistake can be made after you’ve finished heating up the rice. According to Insider, you need to give it a stir with a fork to separate the grains. From there, you should then leave the rice to “rest” for around 10 minutes, as that’s the only way it’ll reach the desired consistency.
On that note, let’s switch our focus back to the cooking technique that could be harming your long-term health. It relates to the amount of water that you start off with — which subsequently gets soaked into the rice. In most cases, cooks look to ensure that the liquid is completely gone by the time they dish up.
Specialized tools like rice cookers usually get the job done, while other people can achieve the same results with their saucepans. But as the grains absorb the water, there’s a good chance that they’re taking in a dangerous substance too. The material in question — alarming as it may sound — is arsenic.
As well as its infamous reputation as a poison, arsenic has also been categorized as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, (IARC). According to them, exposure to arsenic is capable of sparking conditions like bladder, lung and skin cancer. Your prostate, kidneys and liver might be in danger as well.
With that in mind, you’re probably wondering how a toxic chemical like that ends up your rice dish. Well, as per the World Health Organization’s website, arsenic is naturally located in the earth’s crust and so is naturally distributed in our soil, water and air. Due to this, the grains are exposed to it as they grow in the paddy fields.
Other cereals are in a similar position but according to the BBC website rice contains up to 20 times as much arsenic as any other crop. This brings us back to the cooking method that we spoke of earlier. Once the rice is in hot water, the carcinogen is subsequently drawn out of the grains.
However, when the water starts to soak into the rice, the arsenic returns to its original place. As a result of that, hungry consumers are then exposed to the carcinogen when they dish up their meals. It’s an alarming result, yet prior to 2014 the situation was arguably much worse.
Before then, finding any official guidelines on the issue was pretty difficult. In fact, the Consumer Reports organization tried to convince the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to put something together as far back as 2012. Consumer Reports had conducted its own investigation and found traces of arsenic in both rice and rice products.
In response, the FDA confirmed that it was looking at the connection, with its Deputy Commissioner for Foods, Michael Taylor, releasing a statement. Taylor said, “It is critical to not get ahead of the science. The FDA’s ongoing data collection will give us a solid scientific basis for determining what action levels are needed to reduce exposure to arsenic in rice and rice products.”
Two years later, in 2014, both the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization put together a plan. The European Commission got involved as well, settings its own levels for the amount of arsenic that could legally be permitted in rice. However, in the opinion of one college professor, that wasn’t enough.
Speaking to the BBC, Andy Meharg, a researcher at Queen’s University Belfast said that youngsters were particularly vulnerable to arsenic. According to the professor, kids run the risk of suffering “developmental problems” if they come into contact with the substance. And this issue cropped up again a few years later.
In May 2020, a group of researchers published their results from an intriguing study. They had looked at 55 different rice products from the United Kingdom to check arsenic levels. By the end of the project, 28 of them were deemed to contain more than they should for babies and children under five.
Speaking to the Science and Technology Facilities Council website, the project’s chief shared his reaction to the findings. Dr. Manoj Menon said, “Brown and wild rice are healthy foods full of fiber and vitamins and there is no need for grown-ups to avoid them. But it’s concerning to see so many varieties sold in the U.K. breaching food safety regulations.”
Menon continued, “Rice products are often considered a safe option for babies and young children. But our research suggests that for more than half of the rice we sampled, infants should be limited to just 20g per day to avoid risks associated with arsenic. The government and the European Commission must introduce labeling to warn people of arsenic levels in rice.”
The paper itself was eventually published in the Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety journal in July 2020. But given the severity of the figures it shared, is there a way for us to limit the arsenic without cutting rice out of our diets? According to Professor Meharg, something can be done about it in the kitchen.
During an episode of the BBC show Trust Me, I’m a Doctor in February 2017, Meharg conducted three separate tests. Each one involved a slightly different cooking technique. The opening method saw the professor use twice as much water than usual, while he increased it again for the follow-up.
For his second attempt, Meharg used five times the amount of water, while the rice portion remained the same. Given how much liquid was in the saucepan, the grains couldn’t absorb it all. As a result of that, the arsenic content was cut down to just 43 percent.
However, the biggest surprise was still to come. The final technique was simply leaving the rice in some water over a single evening, similar to the pre-soak that we talked about before. From there, Meharg then used the same amount of water as he second test, hoping for an improvement.
Once the rice was cooked, Meharg discovered that the rice now contained only 18 percent of the arsenic. It was a gratifying result that suggested people at home could protect themselves from the carcinogen with a bit of effort. However, the professor’s work showed no signs of stopping after his appearance on the show.
Meharg appeared in a YouTube video on the Queen’s University Belfast channel a few days later in February 2017. In the clip, he outlines what he’s trying to achieve with his tests, ahead of a fascinating moment. Indeed, the academic decides to conduct a unique experiment in front of the camera.
“We’ve moved into a phase where we want to find ways of optimizing removing arsenic from rice,” Meharg says. “The most simple and effective way to do it is how you process rice in your own home.” From here, the video cuts to a shot of a coffee machine and a large jug underneath it.
Meharg continues, “This is a relatively standard coffee percolator. You just have the coffee filter paper lining the funnel and where we put the coffee, in this case, we put rice. The advantage of this cooking [method] is that it means the rice continuously has hot water applied to it. But the water immediately drains out.”
“In that way, any arsenic that’s released from the rice is carried through the filter and into the [jug] at the bottom,” Meharg explains. We then see the experiment in action, as the chemical-ridden water pours through the machine. By the end, over half of the jug has been filled with cloudy water.
Alongside the jug, Meharg holds up the funnel as well. He concludes, “Basically, we have cooked rice here.” While it might not be the most traditional method, that particular technique could be employed at home, much like the other tests. If it protects you and your family from the arsenic, it surely must be worth a shot.